Woody Allen pumps out movies -- writing, directing and often acting in his celluloid product -- at the rate of about one a year. It's an admirable work ethic, but that sort of hectic scheduling isn't necessarily conducive to great art. A long time has passed since the filmmaker has crafted anything as knowing and funny as "Annie Hall" (1977) and "Manhattan" (1979), or as wise as "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) and the underappreciated "Husbands and Wives" (1992).
Last year's thoroughly charming Sweet and Lowdown was a lightweight period piece sustained by a quirky story and tremendously appealing, Oscar-nominated performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. Arriving on the heels of three disappointments in a row -- Celebrity, "Deconstructing Harry" and the musical "Everyone Says I Love You" -- it made for a pleasant artistic comeback.
Like its predecessor, the very funny "Small Time Crooks" is something of a trifle, though one that's similarly bolstered by dead-on casting that gives rise to terrific, likable performances. Unlike much of Allen's work of the last two decades, it's packed with slapstick and displays no shortage of laugh-out-loud comedy. Those elements have largely been absent from the artist's filmography since his first, attention-getting offerings of the late '60s and early '70s ("Take the Money and Run," "Sleeper").
The new film's Ray Winkler is nearly as neurotic and complaint-ridden as any of the kvetching characters Allen has played to the hilt over the years. A dishwasher, he's also an ex-con whose last robbery suffered from a fatal flaw: He and all of his fellow criminals were wearing Ronald Reagan masks, thus making it impossible for one collaborator to distinguish himself from the next.
Several years of low-rent living have fueled Winkler's growing desire to chuck it all and move to Miami for an existence devoted to drinking Buds and swimming. To do so, he needs to make a second attempt at a big score. The first step is convincing his frumpy, pushy wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman, remarkable as usual), a onetime exotic dancer, to relinquish the $6,000 she's been saving for an emergency.
"You got a scheme," says Frenchy, who spends her idle moments watching TV and daydreaming about the lives of the rich and famous. And so Ray does: The loser schlump, sarcastically nicknamed "The Brain" by his jailbird pals, plans to rent a shut-down pizza place that lays adjacent to a Manhattan bank and tunnel his way to a fortune. All too happy to help are dim-bulb truck driver Denny (Michael Rapaport), tough guy Tommy (Tony Darrow) and, eventually, arsonist Benny (Jon Lovitz).
The heist, of course, goes hilariously awry. But the front, a cookie-making operation headed by Frenchy and her ditzy cousin May (Elaine May, strange and wonderful), suddenly turns into a multimillion-dollar business.
"Small Time Crooks" then makes a radical jump from crime-caper comedy to social satire, as Ray and Frenchy, now the fabulously wealthy heads of the Sunset Farms cookie empire, attempt to find a place for themselves within high society. Frenchy taps a sophisticated, snobby art dealer named David (Hugh Grant) for "lessons in life" that come straight out of "Pygmalion," and the two end up accompanying each other to museums, avant-garde dance performances and classical-music concerts.
Frenchy takes a liking to art, music, literature and fine dining, but Ray finds greater pleasure in baseball games, Chinese take-out dinners and evenings spent drinking Pepsi and eating Crackerjacks while watching old black-and-white films on TV. It's a mini-essay on the clash between highbrow culture and lifestyles of the poor and anonymous. And it's not difficult to ascertain where Allen places his sentiments.